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If you assume the COVID-19 pandemic was tough for every entrepreneur, Monica Semington is at least one business owner who proves that presumption wrong.
Even on a fuzzy Zoom interview, her face lights up when reflecting on the past year for Monash Natural Blends, her essential oil business.
During the pandemic, several Milwaukee organizations have redoubled efforts to support Latino-owned small businesses and improve the city’s overall climate for Latino, immigrant and migrant communities.
For Semington, the extra support has breathed new life into her business and given her more direction for where she wants to take it.
Semington started Monash in 2018 on Cesar E. Chavez Drive as part of the Pop-Up MKE initiative; before that she had been selling products at farmers markets around the county. She later moved the business to Grand Avenue in Waukesha, where she continued to sell product until March 2020 when the pandemic forced her to close shop.
At that point, Semington struggled with doubts about her business.
“Before the pandemic, I didn’t have a business plan, I didn’t have any guidance,” she said. “I always had all these ideas, but it was too much, and I was not really focusing on anything.”
With the grants she received during the pandemic, including Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.’s We’re All In and federal Paycheck Protection Program funds, Semington realized that she needed to strategize and use the money wisely if she wanted to save her business. She decided to sign up for a rebranding class and connected with her business mentors, branding consultant Jay Olson. Various exercises helped her realize that her motivation as an entrepreneur stems from the desire to connect with people.
“I started my company Monash Natural Blends because I love making meaningful connections so my clients feel nurtured, loved and empowered,” Semington said. “That’s my ‘why.’”
“This changed everything,” she added. “Because this is not just a sales pitch, this is really drawn from my life and what is really important to me.”
Semington also credits her other mentor, Athena Agoudemos, a business consultant at the Small Business Development Center.
Along with a shifting business plan, Semington needed a new logo and a professional website, two daunting tasks for many small business owners. In fact, a 2020 survey by the Milwaukee-based Hispanic Collaborative of over 1,000 businesses and households found that more than 60% of small, Latino-owned businesses do not have a website, and more than 85% of them do not have e-commerce capabilities.
In response, the Hispanic Collaborative launched mercadoMKE, a nonprofit online marketplace that helps Latino-owned businesses with marketing, website design, financial literacy and e-commerce. mercadoMKE provides these services for free to businesses.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, having a functional online presence was enough to make or break a business.
Laura Hernandez, operations lead and account coordinator for mercadoMKE, said that while many younger people view online shopping as second nature, older generations may not be as familiar with the technology. mercadoMKE’s role is to help build businesses that may not have the money to spend on an IT or marketing person, she said.
Many businesses seeking mercadoMKE’s services don’t have logos or pictures of their product, and owners often tell Laura Hernandez that they looked into websites but felt overwhelmed by the cost and lack of guidance.
“Some businesses were able to adapt quickly to online ordering and pickup,” she said. “But small businesses – Latino-owned businesses – some of them just didn’t know where to get started or how to do this. Basically, what we’re doing is we’re stepping in and kind of bridging that gap.”
Nancy Hernandez started her own marketing firm, ABRAZO, in 2001 and said her experience helps her understand the needs and priorities of other business owners.
“We’re not the ones that are doing the work,” said Nancy Hernandez, who is also the president of the Hispanic Collaborative.
“We’re the ones that are helping to identify what the issue is, quickly bringing together some solutions and getting resources in the hands of the community, so that the community can do it.”
Aside from helping to build an online presence, mercadoMKE’s website houses a directory for Latino-owned businesses in Milwaukee. The website lists more than 45 local businesses including restaurants, retail shops, artisanal products, clothing and bakery. There is also a directory for services like mechanics and maintenance work.
Today, mercadoMKE continues to encourage camaraderie among business owners.
“What we want to do is foster community,” Laura Hernandez said.
Grants from the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center and Advocate Aurora Health helped fund mercadoMKE, while organizations like Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp., Mexican Fiesta and Voces de la Frontera assisted in its implementation.
Hispanic Collaborative launched in early 2019 as an effort to make Milwaukee one of the top cities in the country for Hispanic and Latino residents.
The initiative is in part a response to a 2016 study that indicated “Milwaukee lagged far behind similar-sized cities for Hispanics/Latinxs,” on a variety of quality of life indicators, said Jacki Black, Marquette University’s associate director for Hispanic initiatives.
Nancy Hernandez said the study provided ample data but was lacking solutions, so the Hispanic Collaborative created the Hispanic wellbeing index to measure Milwaukee against other cities. Milwaukee is now ranked 44 out of 50. The goal is to move up to the top 10.
The Hispanic Collaborative focuses on improving key variables including voter registration, median household income, support for undocumented persons, education and support for small business.
“We felt that there should be a set of recommendations and it should come from the Hispanic community,” Nancy Hernandez said. “The benefits are immense ... and put our Hispanic population in a different position to help fuel not just their own families’ and communities’ economic growth and social mobility, but the entire region.”
As Latino business owners carry on a tradition of entrepreneurship in Milwaukee, Semington said she hopes her business will flourish as a safe and accepting place for people to find community.
“I have the chance with my company to make a difference and to do something positive,” Semington said. “To me it’s just, people are people. I want everyone to be part of it.”